Ribera del Duero

Just three words, iambic in rhythm. Say them once and you’re speaking Spanish. Say them again and you’re reciting poetry—and just wait until it’s poured into your glass. Kingdom’s John Halnan practices his verse…

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There’s something synonymous in the pouring of wine and the flow of a river. Indeed, for many great wines (Loire and Moselle immediately spring to mind) the relationship goes even further, taking as they do their very names from the rivers that define their provenance.

But while there can be no doubting the quality of viticulture along the banks of those great French and German waterways, there is perhaps a case for Iberia’s River Duero to become known as the greatest wine river of them all.

New Old Wave

The Duero’s story (or “Douro,” as it is called in Portugal) begins high in the Sierras of Spain. From these epic mountains, the river continues across the Iberian Peninsula before finally unwinding with mouth agape on Portugal’s Atlantic coast. In one 70-mile section, the river forms the boundary between Spain and Portugal. From there, it flows into “Alto Douro”, the heart of the modern Portuguese wine industry. Here, vines cling to steep terraces in improbable fashion and the schist-hard soil produces few—but deeply powerful—grapes.

Not much further downstream the river passes Pinhao, the center of Port production, before finally exiting into the Atlantic.

Port, with its British heritage and unique flavor, is still Portugal’s most famous libation and naturally, the Douro played its by forming and irrigating the terroir (or terruño, in this case) and by being the principal route to market. Today though, the wines produced along this great river that are attracting the most attention are not Portugese Douro’s or the great fortified ports, but a new wave of high quality wines from the rhythmically named region further back upstream in Spain: Ribera del Duero.

It was not until the arrival of Benedictine monks from France in the 12th century that viticulture as we would recognize it today was established in the area. Despite this, the Ribera del Duero region was producing wine for many hundreds of years before the monks’ arrival—a fact that makes it even more odd to refer to its bottled products as part of a “new wave” of wines. After all, the region’s history is measured in thousands of years, and for the last 150 or so Ribera del Duero has been the home of Spain’s most famous winery: Vega Sicilia.

Yet, for most of the 20th century the area was largely ignored. It wasn’t until 1982 that “Ribera” became a Denominación de Origen (DO), an officially defined area and part of a classification system that guarantees authenticity and quality.

Regional Champion

No movement is ever the product of a single individual—and it would be an exaggeration to say that one man single-handedly put Ribera on the wine map—but there was certainly a catalyst that formented the region: Alejandro Fernandez.

Fernandez founded his Pesquera winery in 1972 at a time when many locals were pulling up vines to plant other crops. Working on a small 16th century winepress, he began to develop his magic ways with the classic Spanish grape Tempranillo. The grape had been seen as the bedrock of Rioja wines, then the only Spanish region of note. But by the 1980s Fernandez was pushing that definition, starting to make wines in a far more concentrated and fruit-driven style than most Riojas of the day.

As a Rioja aficionado I clearly remember first tasting Pesquera in the early 1990s and being astonished by the sheer juiciness and approachability of the wine. I was delighted to find a new Spanish wine that maintained the power, elegance and finish of a classic Rioja yet fair danced in the mouth with fruit and berries. Not unsurprisingly I wasn’t alone; Pesquera was gaining critical acclaim around the world, but perhaps most importantly for the region as a whole, Pesquera’s success enabled other area wineries to open in the region. Today, that success continues with the help of Alejandro’s wine-making daughter, Eva Maria. Pesquera has added a few new wines as well: Condado de Haza, el Vinculo and—an excellent value—Dehesa la Granja.

Dane’s Marque

While a determined Spaniard provided the platform for other Ribera winemakers to build upon, it is a great Dane whose star is currently in the greatest ascendancy. Peter Sisseck came to Ribera to make his mark on the world of wine. He spent a few years working for others, but soon struck out in search of his own vision: a wine that was pure Tinto Fino (Ribera’s variety of Tempranillo). In the village of La Horra, he found what he was looking for in five hectares of old vines. The yields were tiny but the perfectionist Sisseck thinned the crop even further, weeding out uneven clusters to ensure consistency in ripening. He fermented his wine in new oak barrels, reportedly twice on some occasions. His first vintage in 1995 became an almost instant hit when the star that is Pingus was born. Wine critics raved, Robert Parker fell in love with it and the price just kept rising. Today Sisseck has three wines that bear his name: Domino de Pingus; his second wine, Flor de Pingus; and his latest and more reasonably priced offering, “PSI.”

We sampled the 2006 Flor de Pingus and although it surely won’t be at its best for a few more years yet, it is already powerful, full of fruit and with a complexity that will only improve. The tannins provide a tremendous finish and one that will undoubtedly beautifully soften and lengthen with time.

Like Father, Like Daughter

One of the first wineries to become part of the DO and, at 840 meters above sea level, one of the highest in the region, is Valduero. It was founded in 1984 by Don Gregorio Garcia Viadero and his daughter Yolanda. Their approach is slow, traditional and extremely careful, using only grapes grown on the estate. The yields are small and they use no irrigation system or artificial fertilizers. The result is a wine that is true to the region and its soil, and powerful enough to age slowly.

Temperatures this January fell to 1˚F but such extreme cold is not exceptional. In the summer it can reach over 100˚F but it is this wide range of temperature that produces many of the distinguishing features of Ribera wines as, to protect themselves against the climate extremes, the grapes grow particularly thick skins that create the richness in tannin, length of finish and deep velvet color typical of a good Ribera.

We tasted Valduero’s Reserva 2004. It is aged 30 months in oak barrels and is wonderfully rich in color, the fruits are slightly darker than typical for a Ribera with blackberry and traces of coffee. The overall effect is of a rich, oak-paneled wine, controlled with an excellent depth and lingering finish.

Well Dressed

Located close to Peter Sisseck’s small parcel of land in La Horra but founded 10 years prior to the first vintage of Pingus, is the Marques de Velilla winery. They produce Tinto Joven, Tinto Barrica, Crianza and their flagship wine, Doncel de Mataperras. The Tintos are excellent value for money but we can’t praise the superb 2004 Doncel de Mataperras enough. 2004 was an excellent year throughout Ribera Del Duero and, although the yield for the Doncel was down 50 percent due to hailstorms, come harvest time the grapes that remained were in excellent health. If anything, the wine will improve still with age, but we found it superbly balanced, precise and, like the perfect dinner guest, immaculately dressed. The fruit is immediate but the tannins are long and lasting, and the wine is an excellent representation of why Ribera del Duero is a region to be both drunk and collected.

Destination Winery

Next up on our tasting menu is a winery by the name of Arzuaga. Founded by Florentino Arzuaga, the winery not only produces amazing wine but is a destination in its own right. The estate, named La Planta, boasts a superb Hacienda style hotel, a restaurant and a reserve amidst the vines in which wild boar and deer roam free. The winery produces a young wine, La Planta, and under the Arzuaga labels a Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. All are exquisite but we were particulary impressed with the 2005 Reserva. It is rich, powerful, wonderfully colored with aromas of leather and oak on the nose giving way to dark berried fruit. In the mouth the wine has a concentration that suggests it will be good to drink for several years yet and provides a finish that makes you want to immediately reach for your glass to sup a second time.

Big Time

While Rioja has built its reputation on Tempranillo and Ribera del Duero on the Tinto Fino variation one newcomer, Vinas De La Vega del Duero has taken a different path. Their 2007 Quinta Sardonia marque comprises 52% Tinto Fino, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 5% Syrah, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec.

The result is a massive wine that probably won’t peak until 2020. Purple in color and with 15.5% alcohol content the wine is crammed with espresso, cherry and blackberry fruit and yet also subtly blends in a complex perfume of spice and incense. The wine is like no other Ribera Del Duero I have ever tasted, and its newness and sophistication has had the critics fawning. If you buy wine as an investment as well as for pleasure my guess is that the value of the 2007 will only go in one direction.

Stands Alone

Located in the heart of Ribera country is Lopez Cristobal. They produce a Roble, Crianza and Reserva and a superb small batch wine from old vines under the name of Bagus.

The 2006 Crianza comprises 90% Tempranillo, 5% Merlot and 5% Cabernet with all the grapes originating from the estate. The wine has a fresh and appealing aroma, and bursts with wild fruit and berries. There is sufficient tannin for balance and finish and the Cabernet adds body but the result is a Crianza that is great to drink with food or just by itself.

Heavenly

In English it translates to “land of the chaplains,” but I have never drunk a wine in church that could remotely compare to the excellence that is produced by Pago de los Capellanes. Located near the village of Pedrosa de Duero, the winery comprises more than 250 acres of vineyards grown in the modern style of trained vines.

All the wines marketed under the Pago de los Capellanes brand are carefully constructed, and rightly deemed some of the best wines of Spain. Their top marque, Pago de Los Capellanes Parcela El Picon, is a particular standout that is priced accordingly. The 2004 vintage was released last year and while it will undoubtedly be great for many years, it is drinking perfectly now. The wine comes from a small parcel of land on the estate that is treated entirely separately from the rest of the grounds, and produces a mere 3,000 bottles. Aged for 26 months in new French oak barrels, the wine is built on tobacco, leather, licorice and oak, but with an immediate floral aroma and intense blackberry fruit in the mouth. The tannin is remarkably smooth, almost sweet, and so integrated into the wine as to produce an almost perfect finish.

More in a mouthful

We finish this article close to where we started it with Vega Sicilia, Spain’s first “stellar” and most storied winery. They offer three cuvees, with Unico (“unique”) being the flagship wine, only produced in very special years. Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to review it for Kingdom, but if you have the chance to drink the 1991 vintage then I guarantee it will say more about Ribera del Duero in one mouthful than I could possibly achieve in a whole series of articles.

DrinkLopez CristobalMarques de Velilla wineryPesquera wineryValdueroWine
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